As a child, the notion of romance to me was distant and adult, and frankly I wanted no part of it – especially in movies; I was the comedy and horror kid, with the occasional foray into fantasy. (Okay, I kissed Bev Peters on the cheek under the schoolyard tire when I was seven, but that fizzled out quickly.) I did however make my way to my small town’s Orpheum theatre at the age of nine to see what looked like a promising horror/sci-fi blend, Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time (1979), and stumbled out into the darkness with a new understanding of what romance meant to me.
An Orion/Warner Bros. co-production, Time After Time was released late September to good reviews and receipts, bringing in $13 million at the box office. Variety called it “an entertaining trifle” and Janet Maslin said “Time After Time is every bit as magical as the trick around which it revolves”. I definitely lean towards the Maslin camp on this one, as it weaves a charming (you’ll be reading this word a lot) spell from first frame to last.
The “trick”, or conceit, that Ms. Maslin is referring to is this: in 1893, Author and futurist H.G. Wells (Malcolm McDowell – A Clockwork Orange) creates an actual time machine. Too timid to use it, he instead shows it to his circle of friends, including Dr. Stevenson (David Warner – Time Bandits), who also happens to be London’s infamous Jack the Ripper. Cornered by the coppers at Wells’ home, Stevenson absconds with the device. When it rematerializes, Wells gives chase to the same location (and time) as Stevenson – modern day San Francisco. Upon his arrival, he meets and falls for banker Amy Robbins (Mary Steenburgen – Dead of Winter), who acts not only as his conduit to the new world, but provides a link to Stevenson, who finds that Jack the Ripper is very much made for this decadent age…
To my nine year old sensibilities, Time After Time immediately appealed with its Marvel Comics’ “What If?” motif, the special issues where they supposed their heroes in alternate realities (“What If…The Hulk became a podiatrist?”); so the “trick” worked on young and old alike – for the kids, a mash-up of the real and fantastic (most of my friends had heard of both Wells and Jack, at least in passing), and for the adults, the dismantling of Wells’ Utopian visions through a very amusing fish out of water yarn.
Of course, as a burgeoning horror fiend the hook for me was Jack the Ripper transplanted to the modern era; the trailer promised such and delivered unto me my favorite interpretation of the character by the charmingly brutal performance of David Warner. All three leads were new to me; but every good story needs a great villain, his chilling take on Saucy Jack made a lifetime impression, and I would find out through watching him in innumerable roles that an ever-so-dry wit was ever-so-present.
Okay, so he’s great, but is it horror? You’re damn right it is, among other things. By no means graphic, Time After Time uses the implied brutality of the Ripper as the narrative thrust for the love story between Herbert and Amy, as well as any social gleanings one takes away from it. And there is a moment involving Stevenson and a young Patti D’arbanville (Big Wednesday) that gut punches as well as anything from Halloween the previous year, implied or not.
Meyer’s script does allow for suspense then, even if a good portion of the middle is given over to Wells’ humorous fascination with the evolution of technology and his dread at what he sees is a decline in values that can’t be charted. But it can be charted, as Stevenson exclaims to Wells, “Ninety years ago I was a freak. Today I’m an amateur.” The Ripper is excited to be a part of this New Morality, especially at it bleeds through the Woman’s Liberation Movement and lands him in a time where independence doesn’t always offer survival. (Plus, the sight of Warner in Travolta disco garb is *chef’s kiss*.) Meyer’s vision of our modern day is, to put it mildly, bleak. Oppressive, too. So what saves it from being a “things were better” treatise? Well, the romance, naturally.
As I’ve said, this was my first experience with all the leads, and to learn that McDowell and Steenburgen fell in love while making this film only adds to the (wait for it) charm, and boy does it show; every exchange is charged and knowing, an unforced chemistry that announced them both as instant stars (she was already on her way up, and he was making his American debut). Steenburgen really stood out to me at the time as a quirky and strong presence that has only been reinforced through decades of memorable turns. I fell in love a little bit that night.
As for McDowell, I fell in love a lot that night; his bespectacled Wells turning out to be one of my favorite performances in film, period. Every gesture, every reaction to his new surroundings (watch his body language as he grapples with this new world), his frantic pleas to the police and Stevenson in regards to Amy, his childlike wonder butting up against sudden horror, every second he was on screen I was mesmerized. He immediately wins the audience over as this man out of time, and made a lifetime fan out of me, regardless of the quality of the venture.
Meyer has made a career out of romance; his best work involves the romance of time and space travel, as proven in his credited (and uncredited) screenplay work in my favorite Star Trek films, II, IV, and VI (which he also directed). Time After Time lovingly displays his affection for the Hollywood of old as well; it’s there in the antiquated Warner Bros. logo he demanded be used and the cobblestoned back lots of the legendary studio for the London scenes. His romance for film is infectious.
And so it was for me as I left the theatre that night; I felt a new appreciation for rousing adventure, for suspense from a terrifying historical figure, a giddiness at a fabled author being thrust into a tale as fantastical as any he would create, and an endearing union between two people (and actors) that not only crossed stars but centuries. Time After Time redefined romance for me in so many ways, and I’ll be eternally grateful to Meyer et al for providing me dreams beyond a sweet, stolen kiss under that schoolyard tire.
Time After Time is available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975)